Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Oh, la honte*...

Nearly three weeks ago, my life came full circle, as I sat in a taxi in the midst of a horrific traffic jam. A traffic jam very like the one that kept my family from arriving on time at mile 16 in Miami. Caused, fittingly enough, by the Dakar Half Marathon. Which, you, my very smart readers, will have noticed I was NOT running.

The guardian for the woman next door, however, did run it. In about an hour and a half, if he's to be believed. And although I barely remembered meeting him, he earnestly invited me to come cheer him on. I think. I'm not always clear on what people are talking about—not because I don't understand the French, but because people so often seem to be doing things I find completely unexpected. (And now that I've gone running with him, does he think I'm his girlfriend? So hard to tell with these Senegalese boys...)

Anyway. He invited me to come watch, which I couldn't do, but in the process of the conversation I revealed my incredible sporty-ness, my deep abiding love for running, and the incredible feats of endurance of which I am capable. Which is to say that I bragged about having finished two full marathons.

It seems that Malik, for thus is his name, runs weekly with the teachers at the French high school, and he invited me to join them. Tonight was the first time I was able to go.

I knew full well that I'd fallen pathetically out of shape these last two months. The stomach flab I could handle, and the tighter clothes haven't reached crisis-level yet. But what really makes me sad is to feel the atrophying muscles in my legs. Run two marathons in a year, and you develop some pretty rocking calves, quads and glutes, and they were a constant reminder of my accomplishment. Those muscles were the direct result of my hard work and long hours, and I was damn proud of them.

But if it takes 20+ mile weeks to build those muscles, it takes far less effort to lose them. And my irregular half-hour runs seemed to be doing the trick nicely.

So I was excited for tonight's run—which, from what Malik said, sounded like it'd be 8-10 miles—even knowing that I'd probably lag sadly behind. Lena, my good friend and regular running buddy, joined us as well. Before tonight I would have sworn I ran faster than her (NOTE! Foreshadowing!)

We met at a little restaurant parking lot to the north of the city, right on the beach. It was a low turnout—besides Lena, Malik and me, only two others showed up. They were both seriously nice, even though, as Lena noted, they are French. (Heh.) We ran a short out and back—so that they'd get home in time for a big soccer match, they said, but it was fairly clear that they ran a distance and a pace designed to make Lena and me comfortable. So off we trotted, in the late afternoon sun, as the day's heat was starting to dissipate.

We jogged along at a very comfortable pace, along a road, then cutting through a construction site, scampering over some rocks along the beach, and running for about 200 m on the sand.

And then. There is exactly one hill in all of Dakar. One. Everybody knows about it, and it's where you go if you want to get a good view of the city. And that, of course, is where we headed. City-level, and thus the main road and where we started, is about halfway up the hill. The beach, being sea level, is all the way at the bottom. So first we ran all the way to the water's edge. And then we climbed.

About halfway up, we reconnected with the road, but for the first bit, we ran up a narrow, rocky trail that wound steeply up the hill. Or rather, they ran. I tried. I probably walked about half of the hill—I'd catch my breath and start jogging again until the pounding in my chest and the heaving gasps forced me to stop again.

I can make a million excuses (and you'll note, I've already woven a few in... it was hot! it was on a trail! there were rocks!), but there's only one reason I couldn't make it up that hill, and that's because I am out of shape. And the worst part? Lena didn't even get winded. Horrible.

But you know what? This is good news. Because now I have a goal. It may take me a while, but before I leave Dakar, I will race up that hill.

And in the meantime, I'll have some good company while I train.

*** La honte: Shame

Monday, March 27, 2006

Adventures in shopping

I need a new purse. For some reason, when I was packing to come here, I convinced myself not to bring any of the purses that I used on a daily basis at home. I had a least two that I loved, and several more that I kind of liked.

But somehow, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be carrying things like a wallet, keys, or a cell phone here. That’s the only explanation I can think of, because when I packed, I brought a messenger bag, a giant backpack, a tote bag, and a supremely ugly purse that my aunt got for free for renewing her subscription to Self magazine, and foisted on me, one night when my defenses were down. Somehow, none of the purses I liked made the cut.

It turns out that, in fact, sometimes I want to carry a purse. So today, since I had to go downtown anyway, I decided to try to buy one. Which, in Dakar, means braving Sandaga Market. Which, until very recently, was a place I found entirely terrifying.

There’s actually a building called “Sandaga Market,” in which you can buy many things, mostly food-related, I think. But the market has spread into the streets and allies all around the building, and now the whole neighborhood is called “Sandaga”. There are stands and shops and tables and people spread out on blankets across the sidewalk—and, in case that wasn’t enough, there are people carrying their wares around on their arms, heads, and backs.

Walking through the market is… a mite intimidating.

Every step of the way, there are people accosting you from all angles. “Loo begg” What do you want? Someone else: “Tu es belle. Tu es francaise?” You’re beautiful. Are you French? A third, fourth and fifth: “C’est pas cher.” It’s not expensive, as they thrust beaded necklaces, horrid souvenir t-shirts, cheap knickknacks into your line of sight. The people with the least appealing stuff tend to be the most insistent. Last time I went to the market, a man followed me for more than 10 minutes, begging me to buy a cheap souvenir kora (traditional instrument). It was the Friday before a huge holiday, and most people had already left the city to head to the celebrations, so the market was half-empty. His trinkets were atrocious, but I felt utterly heartless as I refused to buy them in the face of his desperation.

If you stand still for a moment, the crowd swarms. A man selling jeans pulls out a pair and holds them up to you, tries to get you to take them in your hand. “C’est tres jolie. Ca te va tres bien. Je sais que c’est ta taille. Attend, je vais chercher un autre.” It’s very pretty. It looks good on you. I know it’s your size. Hold on, I’m going to find another.

It’s psychological warfare. You hold all the cards—nobody can make you buy anything. They can’t even make you listen to their sales pitch. But they keep talking, showing you different items, hoping you’ll forget that you can just walk away.

And then there are the people who just want to help. Follow me. You’re looking for a purse? There are tons more over here. Hang on, I’ll give you my business card. Just come over here to my store, and the next time you’re looking for something, you can give me a call.

In the past, I’d venture into the fringes of the market, and within five minutes, I’d beat a rapid retreat.

The last time I went to the market, however, I went with Bamba. He’s one of my closest friends here, and when I told him how much I hate Sandaga, he just laughed. He designs and sews clothing, which he sells at Sandaga, and the market is his home away from home. He knows everybody, can find his way to any corner backwards and blindfolded, and can’t imagine a better way to sell his clothing.

For me, the market always felt so antagonistic, a full-bore attack from all sides. Walking through, I put up all my defenses---clutch bag tightly, avoid all eye contact, walk fast, stop for no one. But soft-spoken, mellow Bamba is one of those guys in the enemy’s front line. It was perhaps time to re-evaluate. Maybe if I let my guard down a teensy bit, I’d be able to see past the machine gun sales pitch, to see the salesmen instead.

Of course, walking through the market with Bamba is completely different, by virtue of the fact that he is there. Even aside from the fact that we run into his friends every two feet, his presence wards off some of the more aggressive salesmen (and if not, he can easily send them away with a few words in Wolof). But after an hour or two hanging out there with his friends—who all chatted with me, offered up their seats, and were perfectly content not to sell me anything I didn’t want—my hatred had greatly dissipated.

Thus it was that a week or so later, I felt brave enough to endeavor actually to buy something. Namely, a purse. I intended to go alone, but I ended up heading downtown with Awa’s cousin (who I’d just met) and when I confessed my intention, she easily offered to come with me when we'd finished our other errands.

And thus began the world's most epic shopping trip. We walked through the entire market at least three times, looking at all the bags, with all the different vendors chasing after us, showing us bags, promising that there was MORE! BETTER! just up ahead.

In the middle of the first loop, we ran into Bamba, who decided to join the expedition. With him along, there were even more people stopping, chatting, trying to help, and sell, etc.

I was feeling incredibly picky—I think partially as a response to how overwhelming the experience was. As if, without a very specific idea of what I wanted, I’d get strong-armed into something I didn’t want. So with armies of people trying to please me, all I kept saying was, “no, that strap is too long.” “No, that one’s too big.” “No, I don’t want a black one.” “No, I REALLY don’t want a white one.” Until I was afraid everyone would just walk away in exasperation.

On the second loop, I finally saw one bag I liked, but the guy wanted more than $50 for it. Right. I've never spent more than $30 on a purse in my life, and I wasn't going to start today. Anyway, I only had $20 on me. And for the record, my friend's purse cost her $6. So we walked on. And the next bag I saw that I liked? The guy asked for $70. That, of course, is what happens when they see white. Not that he expected to get that much—you’re meant to bargain. But when the starting price is that far from the neighborhood of reason, it’s fairly unlikely you’re going to find a mutually acceptable price.

So after almost two hours, I walked away empty-handed. And my poor friends, one of whom I'd only met about five hours previously, had stuck through it all with me.

The thing was, though… It was kinda fun. I mean, I really didn't intend to spend that much time looking, and I still wish I’d been able to get that first purse down to $20, but…

Okay, it’s not the mall. But I definitely didn’t hate it. Which is good. Because I still need a purse.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Naomi to World: Still not dead

Oof. It's been a while. On the plus side, I have a million stories, and the reason I haven't been updating is because I've been too busy doing the things that lead to the having of a million stories.

On the down side, I'm exhausted, and I miss updating here.

I've got a long post ruminating in my head, but I haven't written it yet, and it's going to have to wait until certain other things get sorted out (ooh, mysterious. Don't you hate it when bloggers do that? I do. I used to read a blog of this girl in Seattle, who was in the midst of some big thing, but she couldn't talk about it online. Which, fine, don't talk about it. But instead she would constantly refer to how stressful her TOP SECRET PLANS were. In the end, I gave up and stopped reading).

So, because this post will not be interesting, I will instead be brief.

Things that currently make me happy:
-- I have wireless internet at home.
-- My ATM card works.
-- It's Friday, which means I got to eat Laax (millet porridge with yoghurt. Delicious).
-- The amazingly delicious mangoes that are currently in season.
-- My friends, here and where you are, who are, in a word, the coolest.
-- I have a running buddy, and starting next week, may have a weekly running group.
-- Two phrases in Wolof: Graoul and Amul probleme. Both mean the same thing, "no problem" and both are a fun melange of French and Wolof. Graoul, from French "C'est pas grave". In Wolof, to negate something, you add -ul. So graoul is grave + -ul. Amul probleme is simpler. Am is have, ul is negative, and probleme, well, that's easy.
-- The fact that I'm finally starting to understand a little Wolof, if people speak to me really. slowly. In really. short. phrases. And repeat themselves two or three times. That's progress, baby.
-- Of approximately five ideas that I have pitched to various editors since I became a freelance journalist, four were accepted, and I'm still waiting for a verdict on number 5. That's a hell of a track record.

Things that currently make me unhappy:
-- Dakar is in the midst of an electricity crisis, which means that I have power approximately never. Which, by the way, renders the wireless internet far less useful. It also means that it's fairly hard to get work done, and impossible to keep milk fresh, and I don't even want to think about what it's doing to business owners in the area. How exactly do you run a cyber cafe if there's no electricity between 8 am and 7 pm, which is fairly average for my neighborhood currently? How do you run a grocery store?
-- Tonight I have power, but I don't have water. Sigh.
-- Between last Friday and Wednesday night, I slept about 15 hours, total. Including naps. Because of various reasons, mostly work related. Plus I had (have) a raging cold. Plus my period. I thought I was going to die. I kind of wished I could.
-- Of the four articles I have written, none have yet seen print (or internet, in one case). Most will, eventually, get published. I think. But until they do, this doesn't feel real.
-- There is absolutely no money in this. Will explain more later.

Eh, voila. What's up with y'all?

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Third Kind of Welcome

Last night, I didn’t feel like cooking so I went out to buy a sandwich. As the woman was preparing it, a man bustled in with his cell phone ringing and his bag half open. He still managed a very proper, “bonjour”. He seemed to be in his mid-forties. Bald. Very tall. Dressed very meticulously in a sweater vest and slacks. When his phone call ended (it got cut off, actually), he corrected himself, “actually, I should say bon soir.”

I said, “yup, it’s evening,” and then his phone rang again. He spoke mostly Wolof on the phone, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was his wife, because the words I caught sounded like, “I’m coming, I’m coming. I’m at the house.”

My sandwich was ready, so with a quick, “have a good evening” as I left, I began to walk the two or three blocks home. Halfway there, I began to hear a piercing “psssst.” Around here, that’s the usual way of getting someone’s attention. (As opposed to the American way, I suppose, which is to yell, “hey! Yo!” )

In my limited experience, when the “psst” is directed towards me, it’s rarely something I want to hear. So I pretended not to, and kept walking. But the “pssst”s continued and got louder. I turned my head to see if I recognized the person. Way back, practically at the sandwich stand, there was someone waving madly.

With a sinking feeling, I turned back forwards and continued walking. I knew where this was going to end up, and I was still hoping that if I ignored him, he’d give up.

But no such luck. He started yelling. “Hey. Hey!” So I stopped. I turned around, and waited for the waving man to catch up. When he saw me finally stop, he started running. It was, of course, the man from the sandwich shop. Still sort of officiously bustling, saying something about why am I, uh huh, and of course you wouldn’t, and then, “But you remember me, right? We just met?”

“Yes, I remember.”

And then began the script that I’ve become all to familiar with these past couple weeks:
"How long have you been in Senegal?”
“A few weeks.”
“Where are you from? Are you French?”
“No, I’m American.”
“Oh! I… uh… I don’t… uh… speak very well… very well English…”
“That’s fine. It’s no big deal.” (I’ve been speaking French, and continue to speak French.)
“I’m ----“ (I don’t remember his name.) “You are?”
“Naomi,” I say, wearily. Warily.
“Ah. It’s a pretty name.”
“Thank you.”
“I’d like to make your acquaintance.” He proffers his cell phone. “Can I give you my number? Will you give me yours?”
“No. Maybe we’ll run into each other again.” My standard response.
“But we might never run into each other again. It could be two years.”
“C’est comme ca.” And I walk off.

I should emphasize, and not just because my mother is reading this, that none of these guys are scary or threatening in any way. They’ll tell you they love you (last night at the stadium, I happened to glance right, which was the perfect opportunity for the guy sitting next to me to profess his undying devotion), they’ll ask you over to meet their families, they’ll tell you they want to teach you Wolof. Sometimes they’re persistent—but they take the rejection well. They’re just trying their luck, anyway. I might have their golden ticket, and if they don’t check, how will they know?

None of which makes it any less annoying. You might think that being hit on all day by random strangers would be flattering, would swell your ego, make you feel like hot stuff. But really? Not so much.

I complained to one guy, a friend of a friend, who was obnoxiously hitting on me all night, that it was incredibly annoying being hit on by all the Senegalese men. He was incredulous. What’s the harm? He wanted to know. They’re just being friendly. They’re just trying their luck. And anyway, a lot of white women like it.

I haven’t met one who has. Some, though, handle it better than others. My friend Nina laughs it off. Earlier this week, after Wolof class, I had lunch with her, Lena, and Kristian. After lunch, we stood outside the restaurant for a few minutes, discussing where we were going next. A guy walked up to Nina and started in. When he got to “je t’aime, quoi.” (which is a slangy, very informal construction, and hardly appropriate for a declaration of love), Nina laughed.

“You love me? Are we going to get married?” He was somewhat bewildered, but he played along. “Yeah, sure.”
“When? Is Saturday good for you?”
“Yeah, Saturday’s good.” We were all listening now, and snickering.
“Can I come?” Kristian asked.
“Sure, of course,” the guy replied.
“He’s my husband,” Nina told him.
Now the guy was completely befuddled. “You’re married?” He turned to me. “What about you? Are you married?”
“Me? Yeah. I’m married to him too.” Polygamy is very common in Senegal, although they know that it’s not something Westerners do. The guy was starting to get that this was a joke.
All three of us are married to him. He has three wives.” That was Lena.
“You can’t have three wives. You’re too young,” the guy said.
“I’m rich,” Kristian replied. “Anyway, I’m 36 years old.” He’s 21.
“Well you don’t need all three wives. Why don’t you give me one?”
“Sure, that’s fine. But what are you going to give me in return? I can’t just give up one of my wives for nothing.”
“I’ll give you my sister.”
“Nahh. Why would I trade away one wife for another one? I’ve already got all the wives I need. How about a motorbike?”
The negotiations continued. And then, “but which one can I have?”
“Any of them. Take your pick.” The guy turned back to Nina, hopefully.
“Nah,” she said. “I’m sticking with him,” meaning Kristian. “He’s rich.”
And, laughing, we walked on.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day.

If I haven’t posted lately (and, let’s be honest, I haven’t posted lately) it’s only because I’ve been far too busy, and having far too much fun.

Actually, I feel a little guilty. This isn’t supposed to be a vacation. I’m supposed to be a journalist. And I have been working (she says defensively). I’ve written a short article for that magazine in Pennsylvania. I’m writing the article about the Peace Corps volunteers for my alumni magazine. I’ve written two pitches, and I’m waiting to hear back. Tomorrow I’m meeting with a woman at IRIN, a UN news web site.

But if you ask me what I did this week, I’d be much more likely to tell you about the amazing concert I went to on Saturday night. It was a in a small bar, and the band was PBS Radicale. Or part of PBS Radicale, anyway. The other lead singer was sitting at the table across from us with a very pretty lady at his side. The part that played that night did acoustic African music. There were drums and a kora (stringed instrument) and a guitar, and the singer’s voice was out of this world.

But that was ages ago already. Instead, I might tell you about the Mardi Gras party I went to on Tuesday night, at the church hall behind my house. I went with Marie-Susan, who is one of the maids here, but who is mostly my friend. Her aunt lives nearby, and is hosting three American exchange students, too, so we all had dinner at the aunt’s house, and got dressed up in costumes for the dance party. Marie-Susan lent me a beautiful blue boubou to wear—a long blue skirt with a matching tunic top, and a scarf wrapped around my head. I have pictures. I thought I’d feel ridiculous, but actually, I felt very pretty.

Two of the other Americans also dressed in Senegalese clothes, but in these parts, Mardi Gras is mostly an excuse for cross-dressing. Marie-Susan and Jenna, the third American, decided to join in the tradition, complete with drawn-on facial hair and ridiculous rain hats. But they were nothing compared to the Senegalese boys in full-transvestite splendor bringing down the house in the church hall. Tiny skirts, tons of makeup, fancy wigs. And, this being Senegal, there was as much padding around the, ahem, “jaayfunda” as in the bra. (“jaayfunda” is Wolof for “sell porridge” and is a euphemism for a big/nice ass. The theory being that if you sell porridge, you’re either going to be rich enough to buy good food or else you’ll eat all the porridge you don’t sell. Either way, you’ll be well endowed.)

Last night, all of Dakar was at the stadium (or glued to their television screens) for a friendly football match between Norway and Senegal, and a star-studded concert lineup. I was there, too, with Rose, my new freelance journalist friend, ostensibly covering the event, but really just enjoying the free all-access pass (or almost all access—we couldn’t get backstage). With our green wristbands, the guards wouldn’t let us in the main entrance, (okay, so really not all-access at all) so they directed us to a side entrance, where the access started kicking in, and before we really knew what we were doing, we were standing on the sidelines of the pitch. We looked around a bit, waiting for someone to chase us off, but eventually we found some stairs leading up into the bleachers, and took a seat.

The game was uninspiring (both teams have dismal records this year) but Senegal won, 2-1. The most exciting moment was when the electricity went out with only minutes left in the second half. It may have just been a blown fuse, though, because the lights by the concert stage stayed lit, and the power came back on in a few minutes. During the darkness, everybody pulled out their cell phones and lit up the crowd with tiny, multi-colored stars. Quite pretty really.

My favorite moment of the concert was dancing to “Take on Me” by A-Ha. The Senegalese had no clue who A-Ha were , although they gamely sang along when the lead singer made them. But Rose grew up loving A-Ha (“A-Ha-er for life, not just for Christmas!”) and she, her flatmate, and I had fun rocking out to the 80s music, and looking for the other Toubabs in the crowd, who were dancing too.

The Senegalese singers got much better reactions, and I enjoyed their music as well. But it was freezing cold, (there were people building fires in the bleachers to stay warm) and I was under-dressed. By 11:15 the concert was only half over, and I was ready to go home. So I did.

And what I really want to do right now is complain about the ridiculous number system in Wolof. We’ve been learning it in class this week, and I refuse. I’d love to learn Wolof fluently, but this number system is just wrong.

I have a master’s degree in linguistics. I know all about how there’s no right or wrong in language, there’s just communication. I get that. I believe that. I will never correct someone for splitting an infinitive in English. I make up words and constructions all the time. I think that’s what makes language interesting. But this has crossed a line.

Let me explain. There are only words for about five numbers in Wolof. Once you get past five, you start adding (6=five one, 7=five two, etc.) Then there are words for orders of magnitude (10, 100, 1000, etc.) So 786 is five-two-hundreds, five-three-tens, five-one. (Juroom naari teemeer juroom netti fukk, juroom benn.)

It’s a bit cumbersome, but I can handle it. Most things are rounded to 5 anyway, and it means fewer words to memorize.

The problem comes when you start talking about money. For money, the basic unit is the derem, which is five francs. So two derems is 10 francs. And three derems is 15 francs. So if you ask how much something costs, and they say 3, they mean 15.

Of course, nothing costs 3 derems. There are 500 francs to a dollar. Prices are frequently in the thousands of francs.

Based on this system, you’d think that 50 francs would be 10 derem. You’d be right. After which, the base switches to 50, so you take any number you hear and divide it by 50. And then after 1000, the base switches again, to 500. God help you if you need to talk about something that’s not rounded to the nearest 500. You need a cipher book.

And actually I may be explaining the nuances wrong. I don’t remember all the details. It doesn’t matter though, because I’m pretty determined never to use Wolof numbers to talk about money. I refuse. It’s dumb. My way—the English way—is better. I’m sorry. I know that’s very culturally insensitive of me. Take away my gold star. See if I care.

P.S. Several people have asked me who Michelle is and how I met her. Michelle is an exchange student who has been here since September. I found her blog before I left, and I sent her an email. She was unwise enough to write back.